eSports: about to go mainstream

Our three panelists from left to right: MLSE’s David Hopkinson, Northern Arena’s Marissa Roberto, and SetToDestroyX’s Charlie Watson.

Esports is not a fad.

The numbers simply don’t lie. It’s a billion-dollar industry with 258 million fans around the globe, but is still considered “fringe”.

Now, thanks to professional sports, it’s ready for prime time.

This was the topic of discussion this week at the latest #RBCDisruptors, our monthly forum on technology and how it’s changing the world around us.

We were joined by three individuals all helping grow and shape Canada’s eSports industry into ‘the next big thing.’

Not familiar with it? Esports melds at-home gaming, live events, big-money sponsorship and TV-style coverage into one disruptive package.

Esports is competitive, multiplayer online gaming, handled by professionals, in front of, or for, spectators,” explained one of our panelists, Charlie Watson, CEO & Founder of SetToDestroyX.

Be prepared — this maturing industry will invade the physical and virtual spaces around your city.

How it works

Professional eSports works basically the same as any other competitive league: players compete one-on-one or in teams, advancing through tournament brackets to take on progressively tougher competition. Some games are head-to-head competitions, while others are collaborative and team-based.

The demands of professional eSports on the players aren’t all that different from any other professional sport. They practice, try to stay healthy, and optimize the best strategies for whomever their next opponent may be.

“In our view, yes they’re athletes,” said David Hopkinson, Chief Operating Officer of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE).

“An inexperienced gamer makes about twelve moves per minute, as a gamer I’m personally at about eighty, and some of these eSports gamers are making 300 moves per minute. They’re able to do something with their minds and motor skills,” said Hopkinson.

Yet the top eSports players seem more obsessive than those in more traditional athletic pursuits: many of them train seven days a week, up to 20 hours per day, and the community and culture of gaming fills every other waking hour. That, and the otherworldly hand-eye coordinating demanded of the sport, is why you’re unlikely to come across many eSports pros over the age of 25.

“Having a healthy lifestyle is so important and then being able to surround yourself with good people is key in our industry,” said Watson.

Hitting the big leagues — literally

In 2016, MLSE sold out the 20,000-seater Air Canada Centre in 34 seconds for the two-day North American championship of League of Legends (LoL), faster than some of the hottest acts in music.

For Hopkinson, this was his “aha moment”.

“I’ve never seen a higher curiosity factor from the marketplace in what we’re planning with eSports — it’s higher than we’ve ever seen,” said Hopkinson.

MLSE will soon be announcing the Raptors 2K League, one of 17 new NBA eSports teams.

Introducing new players, comes with a risk — the entertainment factor.

“These players need to have personalities as we’re watching them play — they need an active fan base, or else, who’s going to watch?” commented Marissa Roberto, eSports Host and Brand Manager of Northern Arena, and an avid eSports fan.

Place matters

Despite eSports taking place mostly online, in-person events still play a large role.

“We’re not selling the opportunity to see the game, we’re selling the experience to see this game with like-minded people who want to meet others with shared values,” said Hopkinson.

This trend isn’t going anywhere soon.

“This started with Local Area Network (LAN) parties — gamers got together because they wanted to get together as a community,” said Roberto.

Making the rules

As eSports blends into professional sports, one big question remains — who will moderate the “renegade” gamers used to the freedom (and toxicity) of the Internet?

According to Watson, it’s all about the vetting process — doing proper due diligence when bringing on new professional players.

“We ask the difficult questions and go through a lengthy process to ensure we’re not going to have someone that will compromise the representation of our brand and sponsors,” said Watson.

“They understand that they have to sacrifice some freedom of speech in order to become a professional,” he explained.

And for MLSE, it’s a zero tolerance policy to unprofessional behavior.

“We’re going to have to put some rules and guidelines in place and find ways to police and enforce them just like any other community,” explained Hopkinson.

Is traditional sports a dying breed?

Hopkinson couldn’t say for sure, but pointed out that Ted Leonsis (AOL founder and CEO of Monumental Sports) thinks eSports will dwarf both the NBA and the NFL.

One thing is for certain — all three share the same goal of bringing eSports mainstream.

“I don’t see MSLE as competition, I see them bringing the sport in, and it only builds the community more,” said Roberto.

“It’s like anything else — it will evolve and progress as time goes on,” noted Watson.

“The future is really, really bright,” said Hopkinson.